Burning the Candle at Both Ends Backfires

There’s no getting around it—law is a high-stress, demanding profession. In a culture that measures drive and achievement in billable hours, many lawyers feel compelled to demonstrate their commitment by arriving early, working late, and being reachable around the clock. This 24/7, no-boundaries work ethic has been reinforced by technological developments that facilitate constant connectivity and firm policies that tie bonuses to face time and hours accrued.

But research shows that working longer is not necessarily working better. Rather, every marathon work session has a point of diminishing returns, where plowing forward becomes counterproductive, as cognitive resources are inevitably depleted and we become more prone to error. Some studies indicate that people who over-commit themselves to work ultimately end up underperforming, as they are far more susceptible to exhaustion and burnout.

Notably, this occurs even when people are deeply passionate about their work: According to Robert J. Vallerand, a leading scholar in motivational processes and optimal functioning, there are two distinct types of passion—“harmonious” and “obsessive”—which have markedly different implications for long-term performance. While harmoniously passionate people are able to disengage from work when appropriate (keeping their work in “harmony” with their other activities), obsessively passionate workers cannot help but to rigidly persist in their efforts, even when this creates conflict with other life domains. The end result is that, while harmoniously passionate workers enjoy increased positive emotions, flow states, and psychological resilience, obsessively passionate workers are more likely to suffer from emotional exhaustion and burnout (not to mention poorer health and lower life-and relationship-satisfaction).

In other words, it is simply not possible to consistently give your all when you are working all the time. Taking breaks, on the other hand, has been shown not only to replenish energy and promote focus, productivity, and creativity in the short-term, but also to foster long-term engagement, motivation, and goal-commitment. If you want to achieve lasting success and satisfaction in your law practice, it is in your best interest to take a little bit of time each day to relax and regenerate.

Of course, finding space in your busy schedule for daily breaks will not be easy—it will require dedication and planning. But if you are willing to apply the same level of diligence to self-care as you do in your legal career, the long-term benefits you will reap will be well worth the effort.

Here are some tips to get you started.

Block Out Time

You’ve likely found that scheduling is an essential strategy for staying on top of all the deadlines, meetings and tasks on your to-do list. Managing self-care is no different. Indeed, when external demands on your time could easily expand to fill your waking hours, proactively blocking out time to recharge is often the only way to make it happen.

So take control of your time by sitting down with your calendar each week and committing specific time blocks to daily breaks. Ideally, you will be able to schedule your breaks for a time of day in which your mind and body could most use a restorative boost—for instance, when you find yourself lagging after lunch, or in the evening as you wind down before bed. Alternatively, you might opt for the windows when you’re least likely to be interrupted, such as during your boss’s standing meeting time or in the morning before your West Coast client is apt to touch base.

You need not set your breaks for the same time every day, and inevitably you will need to reschedule some of them. But by carving out time in advance, rather than waiting for the mythical “right time” to arise, you are far more likely to follow through. This is especially true if you demarcate your break on a shared calendar to minimize disruptions (label it private or a generic “busy”) and use pop-up calendar alerts to remind you when it’s time to break. Aim for a full hour—but scheduling even a short break, and sticking to it, is much better than throwing in the towel when you’re inundated. In fact, studies indicate that a mere 17-minute break is enough to replenish mental energy and jump-start productivity—a boost that is perhaps most essential on those particularly hectic days.

Make it Count

So you’ve set aside time for your break, now what should you do? The precise activity doesn’t matter. Almost anything you find relaxing or enjoyable “counts” for this purpose. Just resist the urge to make your break “productive,” for instance by tackling chores on your to-do list. This will only further deplete your resources, defeating the purpose of your restorative break. Plus, studies show that generating positive emotions is itself constructive, as happiness fosters productivity, learning, and psychological resilience.

By all means, get creative! But if it’s been so long since you’ve had free time that you don’t know where to start, consider trying the following:

Phone a Friend

Decades of research demonstrates the importance of social support in promoting well-being and buffering against the negative effects of stress. Use your break time as an opportunity to strengthen your relationships by picking an activity you enjoy doing with a friend or loved one, even if it’s just a simple catch-up call. Incorporating another person into your break has the added benefit of providing accountability to help ensure you follow through—you are much less likely to blow off your break if you know your friend is counting on you.

Break a Sweat

Myriad studies link exercise with stress relief and enhanced physical and psychological health. Exercise has also been shown to slow neural degeneration, improve sleep, and produce spikes in creativity and productivity that endure beyond your workout. To reap these benefits, schedule a “movement break,” whether that means yoga, basketball or just a brisk walk around the block (double-points for combining exercise with social support by playing a team sport or scheduling a sweat session with a friend).

Take a Power Nap

Chances are, if you are anything like many Americans, you’re not getting the recommended seven-to-nine hours of sleep every night. In addition to prompting a slew of negative physical and psychological effects, sleep deprivation has been shown to be one of the best predictors of on-the-job burnout. But research indicates that even a short mid-day power nap can significantly enhance energy, productivity, memory functioning, and mood—in some cases as much as a full night’s sleep. So consider stealing away for some shut-eye when the mid-afternoon slump hits (if your firm hasn’t yet hopped on the nap-pod bandwagon, shutting the door and blinds should do the trick).

Play to Your Strengths

Research shows that using your signature strengths (those character strengths you most strongly identify with and celebrate as your own) each day can provide long-lasting boosts in happiness and reduce your risk of depression. It has also been shown to promote greater vitality and engagement in the workplace. So plan a “strengths break” by taking the VIA Survey to identify your top strengths and brainstorming novel ways to exercise them every day.

Conclusion

As Justice Story famously stated, “The law is a jealous mistress and requires a long and constant courtship.” But burning the candle at both ends is a surefire recipe for burnout. Conversely, by committing just a short time each day to restorative breaks you can achieve the balance you need to keep your professional flame burning into the golden years.

About the Author

Jordana Alter Confino is a lawyer and the assistant director of academic counseling at Columbia Law School. She is certified in applied positive psychology and advises aspiring lawyers on matters including time management, work-life balance, and peak performance. Contact her at jc4951@columbia.edu.

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